Once a junior national champion, Tracy Phillips then quit the game for 20 years out of sheer frustration. Now the local pro is playing the golf of his life, and contending with the big boys at the senior majors

Tracy Phillips was nothing short of a teenage sensation growing up in his native Oklahoma. Coming from a family of golfers, Phillips vied in tournaments across the state before bursting onto the national scene as a 15-year-old rising star – culminating in victory at the 1980 Junior PGA Championship.

“I got on a pretty good run,” Phillips tells NCG on the eve of the 2022 US Senior Open – 42 years later. “I finished second in the 1979 junior PGA and then won it in 1980. I had a very good junior career!”

As a national champion, Phillips also reigned supreme at the inaugural Junior World Cup at St Andrews, but it would then take another four decades before Phillips teed up at a major championship again.

Attending Oklahoma State, Phillips won his first college event by an astonishing 10 shots. However, a combination of back pain triggered by a herniated disc and swing issues meant that not long after, Phillips developed the dreaded driving yips.

“I developed this thing with my swing. I couldn’t hit the ball outside of the barn. I’d hit it dead solid, but then it would go straight right or straight left. I struggled for so long. And having to rely on the short game, sooner or later you just get tired of the battle.”

The child prodigy continued to persevere at OSU for one more year, before losing patience with his erratic driving and dropping out of college. But with golf all Phillips knew – having played since he was two-years-old – there was no other option than to stay in the game.

“When you play the game at a high level like I did as a kid, then to play so poorly and not be able to find a golf course off the tee, that was a real struggle. But what was I going to do? I’ve always been in the game and my passion at that point was to help people play a little bit better.”

Phillips eventually veered towards teaching, become a PGA professional back home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As for his own game, Phillips was done. Having lost all love playing the sport, it would take another 20 years before the American swung a club again.

“For 20 years I didn’t play at all,” he said. “I just didn’t miss playing the game. Not one bit. But I still enjoyed teaching. What I did do was I bought a basketball and took up fishing! When you’re giving 15 lessons a day for nine hours, you don’t want to play golf when you have a day off. You want to go fish!”

So why the change of heart? Fortunately, an old buddy continued to nag Phillips into playing again and, after much toing and froing, the local pro, then in his forties, eventually caved in:

“I had a friend that called me and said, ‘hey, you’ve been out too long. Let’s get out and just play together with a couple of guys, go have some fun.’ So, I started doing that and having some success, which then led me into playing some PGA section events.”

It was a decision which now fills Phillips with immense joy, as the two-decade hiatus seemed to have eradicated his mental and turbulent swing troubles.

“I started doing well and won some events. And here I am now probably playing the best golf I’ve ever played! I’m hitting it straighter and better than I ever have, which has really helped me fall in love with the game again.”

And yet, the story was far from complete. A testament to himself and the game of golf, Phillips has proved you should never pack it in, no matter how hard it gets. Since rekindling his career in 2010, he has continued to go from strength to strength and, at 59-years-old, is now having the dream year.

Following a stellar 12-months on the district circuit, Phillips’s career came full circle as he qualified for the 2022 Senior PGA Championship, one week after he was a marker for Brian Harman at the regular event. Thriving at the opportunity, 42 years on from his first major accomplishment, Phillips had a truly phenomenal week – finishing as the Low Club Professional when he placed T17.

“Going into it I really had a lot of confidence with how I was playing. I barely missed qualifying for the PGA Championship which was disappointing, but I still came away with a lot of confidence. The crazy thing was I really wasn’t nervous. My dad had passed away two years ago, and I think he was watching over me. I just felt comfortable.”

Soaring into surprise contention after the first two days, Phillips was rewarded with back-to-back rounds with Ernie Els on the weekend – a memory the local pro will treasure forever:

“It was fantastic. What a gentleman. Watching [Els] play for so many years, it was a treat and an honour to be able to play with him. He just made me feel very comfortable and like I should be out there.”

And the feeling was mutual, with the four-time major winner also marvelling at his playing partner when Phillips produced the shot of the week on day three:

“It was one of the most amazing shots I’ve ever seen,” Els said after the outrageous up-and-down. “I said to him, ‘Seve would have been very proud of you there.’”

Now, a month on from Phillips’s magical week at Harbor Shores, the American continues his fairytale year having qualified for the US Senior Open at Saucon Valley. Teeing it up at back-to-back majors, the teaching pro believes there are no limits to what he can achieve.

“I’m hoping to go up and play really well in the US Senior Open,” Phillips said. “I feel good and can’t wait to get up there. I know a little bit about the course, hopefully they’ll cut the rough a little bit, although probably not! I just need to hit a lot of fairways and rely on my short game.”

As for the future? Phillips continues to play things one shot at a time, and has little regret about how things panned out.

“I’d like to have at least some of those 20 years back. But I think things happened for a reason. I’m having the time of my life now playing the game I love, and I’m still teaching quite a bit.

“Do I want to go through tour school and chase that dream? I’d love to, but we’ll see. At this point I’m just taking things one tournament at a time. At 59, things are just kind of working out. The better I play, the better chance my daughter has of going to college!”

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